Some people’s view is that sports punditry in general is just a load of nonsense, shedding no new light on the matter in hand. That would make this blog redundant. However, many of us still engross ourselves in this debate and analysis. And why do we? Because the people we are listening to know what they’re talking about. They tend to be former players or top journalists. And on that note, here is the first of a sporadic series, in which I interview celebrities and people of interest about their, my, and your, beloved England. This is my interview with BBC Sport Presenter Chris Slegg. Working for The BBC since the turn of the millennium, Chris also created the first ever ‘Women’s Football Yearbook’ last season. This season’s edition is available now, with Chris and co-author Tom Garry donating 50% of any royalties they receive to sponsor non-professional players. So here’s what he has to say…
What is your fondest England memory?
My fondest memory is the entire 2002 World Cup experience. I was fortunate enough to be at the tournament as a fan for the duration of England’s stay, but I was also doing some work writing a fan’s diary for BBC Ceefax Sport and the BBC Sport website. Thanks to Beckhamania and the celebrity status of Michael Owen, if you were wearing an England shirt, Japanese football fans would actually queue up to have their photo taken with you. It was absolutely bizarre. One fan would stop you for a photo, and before you knew it you had been there for 20 minutes. As an England fan you often fear you will not be made to feel welcome away from home, because of our reputation that dates back decades, but in Japan it was the complete opposite. They embraced everything about England and their fans. The trip itself was incredible, and it felt like I truly was in another part of the world.
If I had to pick just one moment from all the games I attended then it would have to be David Beckham’s penalty against Argentina in the second group match. The Sapporo Dome was unique in appearance from outside and in. Watching a World Cup match under a roof generated a special kind of atmosphere. The Argentina fans were as boisterous as the England contingent.
Having drawn the opening game 1-1 against Sweden, it felt like a must-win game. Memories of the 1998 exit to Argentina were still fresh, and there was of course the story of personal redemption with Beckham having been the player to have so recklessly got himself sent off in that game. The last-minute free-kick he scored against Greece to qualify England for the 2002 tournament went a long way to transforming him into a national hero, but I think that transformation was completed the moment his penalty hit the back of the net against Argentina. The Japanese football fans revelled in England’s triumph that evening too. Out in the town centre, dozens of England and Japan fans traded chants of “Arigato Nippon” and “Thank you England” deep into the night.
A very close second favourite moment is being at Wembley for Gazza’s wonderful goal against Scotland in the second group match of Euro ’96. David Seaman had saved Gary McAllister’s penalty just a few minutes earlier and we went from fearing the worst to complete ecstasy in celebrating Gazza’s magnificent flick and volley and his dentist’s chair celebration.
When it comes to following the Lionesses, my favourite moment was working on Euro 2005 which England were hosting. My role then was helping to do the research for Match of the Day and live football matches and being in the production truck to feed any useful nuggets of information or breaking news via the programme editor to the commentators and presenters. England’s first match of the tournament was against Finland at the Etihad Stadium (then the City of Manchester Stadium). Hope Powell’s team had raced into a 2-0 lead by half-time.
In the second half though, it all started to go wrong with Finland clawing one back and then equalising with just a couple of minutes left. It felt like it was going to be the worst possible start to the tournament, but in injury-time Karen Carney who was then just 17 and playing for Birmingham, came charging onto a loose ball on the edge of the area and slammed it into the roof of the net to win the game in the very last seconds. Her celebration was manic. It really brought home the passion of what tournament football for England meant to every player on the pitch. Unfortunately, England were unable to build on it because they then lost to Denmark and Sweden to go out in the group stage. It felt like a real opportunity lost. At the BBC we had been so hopeful of an extended run in the tournament that would have really got the nation behind the team and could have done wonders to raise the profile of women’s football.
Who is your favourite player ever to represent England and why?
In the men’s team this is easy – Paul Gascoigne. Gazza and England’s run to the 1990 semi-final is the primary reason I fell in love with football, and I mean ‘fell in love’. Before 1990 I liked football. But Gazza and Italia ’90 changed everything for me. Being so much older now and having never seen another English player as gifted as him since, you realise just how special he was. Behind him, the best England player I have seen is the young Wayne Rooney. At Euro 2004 I was behind the goal in which he scored twice as England beat Croatia 4-2 in their final group game. He was amazing, and I felt then that he might go on to become another Gazza. In my opinion, he never quite scaled those heights – although I think he came in for a lot of undue criticism when he was still playing really well towards the end of his international career.
In the women’s team, Kelly Smith was obviously a legend, but I would go for a current player – Fran Kirby. I feel the women’s game is even more competitive now, and she continues to deliver for club and country game after game. She has just been included on France Football’s first ever Ballon D’Or shortlist for a women’s player, as has England team-mate Lucy Bronze.
What did you think of England’s run at the World Cup this summer?
It actually made me quite emotional. As I have just said in regard to Gazza’s talents, the older you get you realise just how much you take for granted. Players like him don’t come along often, and neither do World Cup semi-finals for England. If you had told me when I was sat in my living room with my mum, dad, brother and sister watching England lose on penalties to West Germany that it would be 28 years until England got that far again, and that I would be all grown up with kids of my own, I wouldn’t have believed you. I remember chatting to my best friend in the playground after we were knocked out of Italia ’90 and we were both fully convinced that, on the basis of what we had seen, we would win Euro ’92 and maybe even the next World Cup!
Don’t underestimate the importance of what England did in Russia this summer. I almost fell out of love with the England team and international football after the 2010 World Cup, because the players didn’t seem to care. Travelling to and around South Africa as a fan, as I did, was hugely expensive and to read the stories of a split in the camp, and of Wayne Rooney snarling “nice to hear your own fans booing you” into a television camera was hugely dispiriting. Rooney did that after the goalless draw with Algeria. I was in that stadium for that match in Cape Town, and it remains the worst football match I have watched at any level of the game. Most of the people who were booing were South African locals who had saved for months to be there and couldn’t believe that these England players were the same guys they saw playing out of their skins for their clubs in the Premier League on TV every week.
Four years later, by the time I got to Brazil, England had already been knocked out after just two games. Then came the Iceland defeat at Euro 2016 which is undoubtedly the most humiliating result in the history of English football, and I include the 1950 World Cup defeat to the USA. Now I realise I was so lucky to grow up when I did, to have experienced the semi-finals of Italia ’90 and Euro ’96, and even the guts and glory defeat to Argentina in 1998. An entire generation has grown up without any reason to fall in love with England, and that’s why this summer was so special. What Gareth Southgate and the FA did about opening up the team to the media and the public was an absolute masterstroke. That was like nothing else I have experienced in men’s football throughout my entire career. It was crucial to restore the bond between England fans and players.
I was presenting for BBC London TV in Hyde Park where 30,000 fans gathered to watch England v Croatia on the big screens in the semi-finals. It was the largest gathering to watch football on the big screen since Euro ’96. The atmosphere was incredible, and I think if you couldn’t be at the stadium in Moscow this was the second-best place to be. I got shivers down my spine when The Lightning Seeds appeared on stage before kick-off and played Three Lions. When Kieran Trippier put us ahead after five minutes the roar from the crowd was deafening. I really did convince myself we were going to be in the World Cup final. In the second half though you could see that Croatia were wrestling control of the game and they fully deserved the win. I’m not saying we will never get to a World Cup final, but I don’t think we will ever get a better chance. I would put England in the same kind of category as Croatia, whereas usually you would expect to meet a true football superpower in the last four.
What inspired you to get into sports journalism?
I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was probably Italia ’90. England’s run to the semi-finals, the manner of their defeat, Gazza, Nessun Dorma and the way that the BBC and ITV covered the tournament. While it was incredibly painful at the time, I often think now that England losing that penalty shootout had a greater pull on me and taught me the true emotional power of sport. You have to remember that was the first time any of us had ever experienced England in a penalty shootout. To feel just how narrow the margins are between success and failure, to see a potential World Cup final place disappear like that was genuinely difficult to come to terms with. It sounds terribly over the top, but as a kid who had been fortunate enough not to experience a genuine bereavement, this felt like one. Obviously now I realise that whatever happens on the field of play can never truly be compared to real life tragedy or loss, but I think it shows how powerful sport is that you can feel that way.
I think I realise now the power of television too. I prefer to be in a stadium to watch a football match, and I would recommend to anyone who is younger and only watches games on telly to go and see a game, although I appreciate it is a lot more expensive now than when I was younger. Having said that, I’m not sure I would have fallen in love with football in the same way if it wasn’t for how television shapes an event. I was too young, but if I had been in the stadium in Turin I probably wouldn’t have seen Gazza’s tears, I probably wouldn’t have noticed Lineker turn to the dugout and mouth to Bobby Robson to ‘have a word’. I wouldn’t have heard John Motson’s brilliant line of commentary in the run-up to the equaliser: “Augenthaler couldn’t do it. Lineker probably could.” TV and radio give greater resonance to on-pitch drama.
After that tournament I would write my own match reports whenever a game was on TV. When I started going to games I would write my own match reports as soon as I got home. I would read the sports pages of the newspapers every day, and became addicted to following the sports news on Ceefax. I think I wanted to be a journalist long before I had really admitted it to myself. When I went to Warwick University I started writing for the student newspaper and when I left Warwick I went to Sheffield University to study a Masters in Print Journalism. I was very lucky that as I was approaching the end of that year my mum spotted an advert in the newspaper. The BBC Ceefax Sport service was looking for a journalist. I went for the job never believing I had a chance, but I got it.
Which players do you find most promising in and around the England set-up?
In the men’s game, like so many people, I am really excited by Jadon Sancho. He’s still only 18 and is playing consistently well for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. It’s refreshing to see a young player seize their chance for regular game time by going abroad. I haven’t personally seen much of James Maddison at Leicester, but I heard Chris Waddle – a man who of course played alongside Gazza – saying on 5Live recently that Maddison is a maverick, that he could be the player to give England just that little something extra, that unpredictability. He is only 21, and while you never want the whole country to start putting pressure on one individual, I think what goes in his favour is the level-headedness of his international manager in Southgate, and also the fact that England are playing with a system and a solidity, so he won’t just be tossed in without that security around him.
For the Lionesses, as we approach next summer’s World Cup, there is a lot of excitement surrounding Manchester City forward Georgia Stanway and her club team-mate, goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck. They have both received their first call-ups for the squad to play Sweden in November’s friendly. Stanway scored a stunning volley against Reading recently and there has been a real clamour from the media and fans for Phil Neville to include her before now.
Which England player do you regard as the best ever, and which England side?
For men’s player, I have to go for Bobby Moore and, for team, I have to go for the 1966 team that he led to ultimate glory. It all happened well before I was born, but I have watched plenty of their performances in the past on video, DVD and today on YouTube. I have also read enough about Moore to know just how highly regarded he was by players all over the world. The true greats of the game like Pelé, Beckenbauer and Cruyff held him in such high esteem. That 1966 England team found a way to win the World Cup whatever it took, and none of our other teams ever have. It must have been devastating to concede an equaliser to West Germany in the final minute, and you would fully imagine that the psychological advantage would have shifted to Germany. Sir Alf Ramsey’s team-talk before extra-time has gone down in legend, though. “You’ve won it once, now go out and win it again”.
In the women’s game, I would go for Kelly Smith. She had only just celebrated her 17th birthday when she made her England debut in 1995. She went on to have a great career and was voted third in FIFA’s World Player of the Year awards in 2009. Her England manager Hope Powell said she was the female equivalent of Maradona or Messi. She could have achieved even more had her career not been hampered by serious injury. I would choose the team that finished third at the 2015 World Cup in England as our greatest women’s team. While we have twice been runners-up in the European Championship (1984 and 2009), our run at the World Cup in Canada four years ago was our greatest showing on the global stage, so I will go for that.
Where does this England team rank in the world right now? Also, if we really have turned a corner given the World Cup and the win in Spain, what do you put that down to?
At the moment, England’s men are ranked No.5 in the world by FIFA. The four teams above them are Belgium, France, Brazil and Croatia. On the basis of what we saw at the World Cup and in the Nations League since, I would certainly put those teams above England, as I would Spain, Uruguay and Portugal too. So I would put England 8th. Critics will say the only games we won at the World Cup were against Tunisia, Panama and Sweden, but in 2010 we failed to beat USA and Algeria, in 2014 we didn’t win any games and at Euro 2016 we drew with Slovakia and lost to Iceland, so I certainly think we have turned a corner and the first-half performance, as well as the result, against Spain proved that.
I believe it is largely down to Southgate. He has restored the pride and joy in playing for England and removed the fear factor. This is a man who endured possibly the lowest moment any England player has ever endured. I know plenty of England players have missed in shootouts, but Southgate’s miss came when we were hosting the tournament and when every other player on both sides had taken a top-notch penalty. I’m sure he tells players that if he can survive that, they can survive anything that international football can throw at them. As I have previously alluded to, the Golden Generation team, as we call it (circa 2002-2010), had so much talent but did not seem to enjoy playing for England and so they never fulfilled their potential. Southgate though is getting the absolute maximum out of every player and has created a team greater than the sum of its parts.
England women are currently ranked third behind Germany who are top and USA who are second. They finished third at the last World Cup and didn’t come anywhere close to maximising their potential at Euro 2017 in the Netherlands, but still managed to reach the semi-finals before a thoroughly disappointing 3-0 defeat to the hosts. I think there is no reason why they can’t get to the semi-finals at next summer’s World Cup in France. Given that it is on our doorstep, I think England fans will travel in numbers. With the last World Cup taking place in Canada, it’s great that this one is in our time zone and that could have a huge effect on making it accessible to a new generation of young fans.
How do you see the future going for England? How will Euro 2020 go for example (if we qualify)?
As I’ve said, my schoolboy self was convinced after reaching the 1990 World Cup semi-finals that we would become European Champions two years later. Since then I’ve learnt so much about how football doesn’t quite work like that, and yet maybe I’ve learnt nothing at all because… we’re going to do it aren’t we! Only joking. Honestly, I don’t think we will win it. I do though think we have a chance of getting to the semi-finals. Since those games, and the final, are taking place at Wembley it would be absolutely tremendous for England to feature in those latter stages and for another generation to experience football ‘coming home’ in terms of hosting part of a major tournament.
It could also ‘come home’ in 2021. England are the only country to have made an official bid to host that year’s women’s European Championship with UEFA set to make a decision on 3rd December. England will only be denied the right to host the tournament if there is something technically wrong with their bid, which seems highly unlikely. I have already said I expect us to reach the last four at next summer’s World Cup and as hosts of Euro 2021 I would give us a real chance of winning it.
Thanks to Chris Slegg for his insight into where England’s men and women are at right now. As well as harking back to some nostalgic memories, he has shared his passion and hopes for The Three Lions and Lionesses. Keep a look out for future England interviews with other notable people. You never know who I might find…